Stories About Education

My piece this week at The Umlaut was inspired by the ongoing debate about online education. I say “inspired by” because, while it was my intention to write about online education at the outset, that’s not where I ended up at all. I came to feel that the whole debate wasn’t really about Udacity or any of the new sexy education tech of the moment, but rather about a general sentiment that something has gone horribly amiss in the American system of higher education.

Moreover, it became clear to me that there isn’t anything particularly special about the latest online offerings. Cheap, practical alternatives to the college path have existed for a long time now in the form of professional development courses, industry certifications, and vocational schools. For some reason, people tend to look down their noses at these options, if they even acknowledge them as options at all. I decided to make our weird priorities, and the consequences of them, the main thrust of my piece.

It’s always fascinating to me the different stories that we have about why we go through this crazy 16 year process called formal education. One thing I noticed is that proponents of the “online education is going to change everything” point of view tended to all subscribe to the notion that education was about information transfer. Their critics, on the other hand, were much more ambiguous in what they thought education was for—and seemed to lean towards some sort of cultural, rite of passage type argument.

Meanwhile, in economics, you have the signal theory of education. The short version of this is that the content of your education is more or less worthless, it’s really just about sending a signal to the market about what kind of worker you are. One of the biggest proponents of this point of view is Bryan Caplan, who is quite skeptical about online education’s ability to make a dent in the establishment. Unlike most of online education’s critics, he is arguing from a place of cynicism rather than idealism about the nature of education in general.

Information Transmission

The productivity of teaching, measured in, say, kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time, hasn’t increased much. As a result, the opportunity cost of teaching has increased, an example of what’s known as Baumol’s cost disease. Teaching has remained economic only because the value of each kilobyte transmitted has increased due to discoveries in (some) other fields. Online education, however, dramatically increases the productivity of teaching.
-Alex Tabarrok, Why Online Education Works

The whole point of learning is that you learn something, right? It’s all about imparting information upon the student. Whether we’re talking about multiplication tables or the date and consequences of the Battle of Hastings, students are—in theory—supposed to walk away from the school year with more information in their brains than they had at the beginning of the year.

If this is your story of education, then brick-and-mortar education must surely be doomed. In the essay linked to above, Tabarrok points out three reasons why this would be so:

I see three principle advantages to online education, 1) leverage, especially of the best teachers; 2) time savings; 3) individualized teaching and new technologies.

The first point goes to the fact that a single recorded lecture or piece of writing can now be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world that has access to the Internet. Tabarrok’s TED talk has been watched 700,000 times, several hundred thousand times more than his non-recorded, un-uploaded lectures ever will be. This is the blockbuster effect. In theory, the very best lectures by the very best teachers can now dominate the education of everyone in the world.

The time savings comes from the fact that with a recorded lecture, you can be as concise as possible, since people who don’t get it the first time have the luxury of rewatching it as many times as they want. Meanwhile, the people who get it the first time can move right on to the next lecture, a convenience not afforded students in a classroom who have to wait while the teacher answers their classmates’ questions.

The individualized teaching comes from the fact that teachers can outsource the lecture part of education to online resources and spend the time they would have been lecturing answering individual questions instead, and talking one on one with students. This is what is called flipping the classroom.

Clay Shirky also subscribes to the education as information transmission story. In his post which kicked off a huge debate about online education and education in general, he compares Udacity and MOOCs to Napster and the MP3. Infinite copies can be made, it can be transmitted over the Internet, and it’s available at no charge. In a response to critics of the piece, he bluntly states what he believes to be the chief purpose of education:

What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

I am highly skeptical of the information transmission story of education. I’m sure that some information does get transmitted, though, as Caplan points out, most students forget most of it, and it doesn’t even take very long. Moreover, as I outline in my Umlaut article, there have been more cost-effective methods for transmitting information to students for decades, and these have only multiplied in quantity and variety, and lowered in cost.

Yet still we treat the 16 year path from K-12 to a bachelor’s degree as the proper way of doing business. Does it really take 16 years for us to convey all the information we want conveyed to our youth, even without digital technology? I find this story hard to swallow. Something else must be going on here.

Manufacturing Persons of Quality

The classroom has rich value in itself. It’s a safe, almost sacred space where students can try on ideas for size in real time, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions.

-Siva Vaidhyanathan, A New Era of Unfounded Hyperbole

My suspicion is that this whole formal education thing is just a case of cultural snobbery. K-12 makes a certain sense—there’s certainly a lot of value in promoting literacy and basic math skills. I don’t think there’s any reason why that should take until we’re 18, but there you go.

But college in particular was never about information transmission, back before the modern push to universalize attendance to it. College was where Persons of Quality went to learn how to sound intelligent when talking with other Persons of Quality.

We talk about college as if it’s the only thing standing between the average student and a lifetime of unemployment—or worse, a lifetime as a cashier or burger flipper at McDonald’s. But I think on some deeper level, people just think there is something wrong with the kind of people who don’t go to college. Or that college imbues its students with something glorious and unquantifiable that it is unjust to deny anyone access to.

But if you don’t want to work at McDonald’s, you could become, say, an electrician. According to the BLS, this requires 144 hours of technical training and then four years of paid apprenticeship, after which the median electrician makes $48,250 a year–enough to live comfortably. And this is just one example–there are tons of paths that cost enormously less in both money and time to avoid the burger-flipping or gas station clerk outcome, if avoiding that sort of work is your goal.

But if it’s not a lawyer or a doctor, we sneer at vocational education.

In the week leading up to submitting my piece at the Umlaut, I read a lot of responses to Tabarrok and Shirky’s arguments. One thing I found odd was that these critics seemed to have a less clear idea of just what education was for than Shirky or Tabarrok did. However, I detected cultural snobbery in the background. Take the Siva Vaidhyanathan quote above. Or the following:

As a student, when I was at Ohio State I took a class with Jennifer Cognard-Black, a graduate student. I had been reading George Orwell’s letters. I just went to her office hours and I was like, I’ve got these letters, aren’t they cool? And I had nothing to say! I was really just thrashing around, [it was] incoherent excitement. And she said, “So, what are you interested in, which part of it?” I don’t even remember what we said. It wasn’t that this was an intellectually transformative experience; it was that I was taken seriously as a thinker, and it validated the entire idea of being excited about George Orwell’s letters. It sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it was huge.

That’s Aaron Bady, quoted in the Awl. Unlike most of the participants in this debate, Bady seems refreshingly clear that we don’t really know what this is all for:

The thing is, when you frame this as, “what does this give them for the rest of their lives?” one never really knows, and I think that’s the point; there is something, but it’s something we’re all discovering together. When we reduce education to job training; when we reduce it to, “we need X skills, so let’s do whatever causes X skill to come out,” you really close down all the possibilities.

So college is a place where you can be taken seriously as a thinker, but we don’t really know what value that will have for the rest of your life. But if you hone in on one particular thing, you’re being closed-minded about all the other possibilities.

As someone who spends a lot of time being excited by any number of nerd-equivalents to George Orwell, I feel confident saying that I’ve been able to live Bady’s experience over and over for something like half of my life. I did it online. When I was a teenager, I went from forum to forum, raging about politics and philosophy to anyone who would engage. And engage they did. I found plenty of people to share my excitement over esoteric intellectual subjects with over the years. After forums, it was blogs, which are obviously still a big part of it. Then Facebook and Twitter and the new wave of social tools grew up and it became that much easier to connect with others who would share my excitement.

So finding a group where you can be “taken seriously as a thinker” is easier than it has ever been. And I’m not sure it’s worth cramming billions of dollars in subsidies and encouraging people to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to keep an open mind about what college might be about.

It would be unfair not to link to Bady’s own critique of Shirky here, which is much more targeted to Shirky’s specific arguments.

But from Bady, Vaidhyanathan, the author of the Awl piece, and elsewhere, I’ve sensed an implicit cultural judgment in the same family as complaints that we’re reading tweets rather than Tolstoy. I always wonder–why Tolstoy? A lot of people are reading Harry Potter, for instance. Are they somehow spiritually inferior if they haven’t also read Tolstoy, or some great classic?

I don’t meant to imply that there is no value in Tolstoy or in the great classics. I do mean to imply that obtaining that sort of value probably isn’t actually worth the enormous amount of money that is currently being spent on it by governments, charities, and private individuals. Especially when you can read Tolstoy for free online!

Signaling Theory

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

-Bryan Caplan, The Magic of Education

Signaling theory in economics was pioneered by Michael Spence. The basic idea is that there are people with desirable qualities for employers, and people without them, but on the surface they seem identical. However, it turns out that obtaining a college degree costs less for the people with the desired qualities than the people without them. Maybe this is because those people tend to come from middle class families, and therefore have the financial support of their families. Or maybe this is because the people without the desirable qualities don’t have the discipline to make it through four years of coursework.

Whatever the reason, the cost differential is all that matters. The students could learn nothing but garbage for four years, but if they can get to the diploma at a lower cost than people without the qualities that are valued in the market, they will increase their lifetime earnings by getting the diploma.

Note that education policy understandably aims to lower the cost of access for everyone. If education is largely signaling, then this is extremely wasteful. Since the cost differential is what matters, then lowering the costs for everyone just raises the bar for obtaining the differential. In practice this means spending more years in college than people would have under a less generous policy. So, if signalling theory is what explains most of why people go to college, then our current policy is wasteful both in spending and in that it encourages people to waste their time for longer.

Caplan brings a lot of empirical arguments to bear to defend the signalling theory of education. Most of these are intended to demonstrate how worthless an education actually would be in the market, if all we cared about was the actual content of it. Consider the following:

Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors. No magic there; I’m teaching them the one job I know. But what about my thousands of students who won’t become economics professors? I can’t teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs they’re going to have. Few professors do.

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.” But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them… if you’re lucky.

Other educators claim they’re teaching good work habits. But especially at the college level, this doesn’t pass the laugh test. How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate – or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week? School probably builds character relative to playing videogames. But it’s hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.

Caplan makes strong, provocative arguments, and I look forward to his book on the subject. I tend to think that at least part of education must be explained by the signalling model. On the ground, this was certainly a story that my fellow students would often pay lip service to. The story was not so systematic or formal as the actual economic theory of signalling; instead it took the form of the belief that all we really got out of college was a piece of paper that for some reason bestowed magical qualities upon us in the job market. Whether or not anyone really believed that depended on the mood you caught them in, but it was a well circulated story none the less.

I also wonder if there isn’t some marriage of the signalling story and the Person of Quality story to be found. What if what employers really want are people raised with a certain set of values, and going to college demonstrates a commitment to those values?

In the diffusion of innovations literature, new ideas and products spread lightning fast when they reach that big chunk of the population (labeled the “early majority” and “late majority”) where the vast majority of the people involved have very similar characteristics. This sets them apart from “innovators” and “early adopters” who tend to be richer or of higher status on some margin than the majority, and “late adopters”, who tend to be poorer and of lower status than the majority.

What if the chief benefit of universalizing formal western education in this country was that it made everyone a lot more like one another? Just as we’re more likely to marry or befriend people who are more like us, we also may be more likely to hire someone who is more like us, or invest in a company run by someone who is more like us, and so on. Maybe education has almost nothing to do with information transmission, but instead is some mixture of acculturation and signalling?

How Education Has Changed and Will Continue To

The bottom line is that we don’t really know what function education serves. There are a lot of stories and you can put the evidence together in various ways to defend many of them, many that contradict one another.

But it seems clear to me that the way education will change, and has been changing, is clear, regardless of what story you choose to believe.

It will change in the way that all things have changed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution–we will see bigger blockbusters and longer tails.

Let’s say you believe the information transmission story. Then, as Tabarrok pointed out, you will get blockbuster lectures and educational materials; stuff that is seen by an unprecedented number of people around the world who are eager to learn. You will also get long tail effects–a huge amount of variety, some of which only gets seen by perhaps a handful of people but which may nevertheless enrich them intellectually.

Let’s say you’re a believer that the world has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since we all stopped reading Tolstoy. Well, as I mentioned before, now anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can access Tolstoy’s works, for free. And anyone anywhere in the world can write about Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and how society is going to hell in a handbasket since there are people who would rather read Harry Potter. There will be a long tail of communities populated by people who subscribe to the culture of the Person of Quality.

Caplan is extremely skeptical that online education will have much of an impact if the signalling theory is correct. But there has been a long tail of credentialing for a long time–consider project management certification, or SAS certification, or any number of other industry specific certifications. And Russ Roberts pointed out that homeschooling went from being a marginal activity to gaining acceptance.

Moreover, there’s an argument to be made that our current way of paying for higher education is simply fiscally unsustainable–Shirky makes this case at length. So the nature of the average education may end up changing due to some combination of financial implosion in the traditional sector and innovation on the outside.

Education is already a power law industry, and it will always remain one. It will probably grow even more skewed than it is today. But the particulars are going to change, and the long tail will get longer. On the whole, I am optimistic.


After posting these, I received a couple of responses that tell a story of a different sort.

The thing that fascinates me about education is that no one can seem to agree on what it is for
Adam Gurri

@ That’s silly. It’s zero marginal cost babysitting.
Nathanael Snow

Along the same lines, my father added:

I think Shirky’s right: higher education is like the daily newspaper, a bundle of unrelated stuff. It all makes cultural sense, until it doesn’t. College was a place for the Great Middle Class to park their kids until they figured life out. The cost-benefit of that makes the commitment increasingly untenable…

Using Programming to Learn Math, Using Math to Learn Programming

When I was in High School, the tool of choice for any math class was the TI-83 graphing calculator. I believe this is still the case.

One cool thing about TI-83’s is that you can create custom programs for it, using a language called TI-BASIC. By going online, you could find all kinds of programs people had made for the things. Games were of course the most popular thing to download; simple things like Snake or a port of Oregon Trail.

For more practical purposes, there were programs that could, for example, solve any quadratic equation. The teachers did not approve of these. I wasn’t one to cheat, so I thought–is it really cheating if I make the programs myself, from scratch?

It was a great exercise. I often had to make multiple programs per unit, since the standard fare of math classes is to have problem sets with different givens and different unknowns (it might be the Y-intercept or it might be the slope that is unknown in the slope-intercept equation, or it might simply be Y). This forced me to really get to know the different equations inside and out, and it also tested the limits of my knowledge of what I could do in TI-BASIC.

But the teachers still did not approve of this. They took every possible opportunity to ask us to wipe the memory on our calculators. They discouraged using programs at all. They were so wedded to the traditional way of teaching and learning math that they saw this incursion of technology as nothing but a distraction, and a tool for cheating.

I can’t speak for every math teacher in the country, but I can say that mine were subscribing to a backwards way of thinking. Do you know how many of the kids in my Freshman geometry class still remember what they learned there? And of those, how many actually ended up with a practical application of that knowledge? I promise you that the number is very close to zero.

But what a wasted opportunity to encourage kids to get into programming!

A Co-Learning Program

I am not suggesting that we give up on teaching math, but I do think that how we teach it needs to be seriously rethought.

What if, at the same time that elementary school kids were being taught basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables, they were also learning the basic syntax of one programming language, like Python?

As students progressed in their learning of math concepts, it would become increasingly integrated with the programming classes. Math problem sets would require students to create programs, on the spot, that could solve whole classes of such problems. The actual programming class would be dedicated to teaching bits of Python that would specifically be helpful for solving such problems, without spelling out exactly how to accomplish that end.

In short, math would be used to demonstrate what programming was capable of accomplishing, and programming would be used to force students to think in depth about the nature of the math they were learning.

This concurrent, integrated learning program would begin in elementary school and follow students all the way to the end of High School. By which point they would know at least as much math as any other High School graduate, and have a mastery of at least one programming language that only a tiny minority of High School graduates (or anyone) can really boast of today.

Education and Culture

Proposition: K-12 education serves primarily to initiate people into a culture rather than actually teach them practical skills for life.
Adam Gurri

I have a story, which you may find plausible, about the nature of education.

Without touching on the loaded subject of education’s purpose, I think we can meaningfully talk about what its function has been, in practice.

Historically, the function of education has been to initiate young people from affluent families into a high-status culture. It has not been used to provide practical skills that would be put to use in the workplace. Leo Stein, one of Gertrude Stein’s brother, attended Harvard and then Johns Hopkins for college, yet he was rich enough that he never needed to work to support himself. He had no need or desire to accumulate human capital, nor to send any signal to the labor market.

Education is an extension of the universal human desire to be part of a group–especially if being part of that group makes you feel superior to those who are not.

Whether or not that is entirely still the case is a more complicated question. Since at least the progressive era, education has been viewed as an instrument for practical skillbuilding, and something that should be universal. Rather than rebuild education to suit that purpose, however, we have taken traditional education and tried to force it into a new role. Which may be one explanation for why it has been so bad at filling that role.

And we still look down on vocational schools, which are much more specifically tailored to skill building. That alone should tell you something about the true purpose of education even at this late date in its history.

I described previously how the economics department at George Mason University served as a hotbed for spreading a certain culture and ideas, and how most university departments played a similar role. Charles Nauert, Jr. has argued that it the emergence of the studia humanitatis curriculum in Europe played an enormous role in the cultural event that we have come to call the Renaissance. Education and culture have been inextricably linked for a very long time.

It seems possible to me that economists have entirely missed the source of the economic impact of education. Maybe it isn’t about getting skills or signaling that you’re a certain caliber of worker. Maybe it has sped up the diffusion of innovations by making more people more like one another in certain dimensions. Or maybe it’s about reducing transaction costs by giving people a common set of points of references, or building trust within the group of educated individuals.

Whatever it is, I’m coming to suspect that the economic impact of education is mostly indirect; and that the function it serves remains, as it was historically, a cultural one.